They were still following us. We hadn’t managed to lose them, despite our best efforts. I could hear their frenzied footfalls and their growls filling the wintry night air, just behind us. How close were they, I wondered? One step? Two? If one of us stumbled as we ran up the path, would they be upon us before we hit the ground? Would they catch us even if we didn’t? Were we one or two seconds away from being tackled to the ground and devoured, our pained screams straining into the night?
As we sprinted, full pelt, the questions swirled around my mind like the snow that had fallen earlier that day. But, unlike the snow, the questions didn’t settle and melt away. The doubts stayed and gnawed at my mind, a chaotic and almost indecipherable whirlwind of worry and what-ifs.
I looked over at Gloria – a stolen glance I could scarcely afford – to see how she was doing. Her face was red, her eyes wide and white, her breathing ragged but steady with practice. Chuff. Chuff. Chuff. Chuff. She was a jogger in her spare time, in an effort to get healthier; a target she’d long since achieved. She’d run a few marathons for charity in the past eighteen months. Although the screaming corpses that were hot on our heels were almost certainly an added pressure, I had the feeling that Gloria could stay ahead of them for hours before hitting the proverbial wall.
I, however, was struggling. Even though Gloria had put an effort into getting back into shape, she was alone in those efforts. I led an admittedly sedentary lifestyle. And it was showing, now.
The cold night air bit at my face, making my skin tingle and my eyes water. My lungs screamed in agony – they felt as if they were on fire. I sucked in ragged breath after ragged breath. I was near the end of my bodily limits. I couldn’t keep this up forever. The dead behind us, however, seemed to have a nearly endless source of energy. If only we could get there, we might stand a chance. If we could just stay ahead of them and out of their grasp for another minute or two, we might be able to outlive the night.
Not far not far not far, my panicked brain repeated with each lumbering footstep up the hill. It was true; we had less than a hundred metres to go, if that. A minute. Maybe less, maybe more. For me, at any rate. I was sure that Gloria could make it in thirty seconds if she really threw herself into it.
I had the haunting certainty that she could leave me behind and run on ahead, should she have the inclination to do so. But was choosing not to. She was sticking by my side. The thought that I was the weak link here was a horrible one; it was also frightening. The thought that she was staying by me anyway was a heart-warming one. You never really know how much another person loves you until they stay within death’s reach just to keep you company.
Huffing and puffing, head starting to feel dizzy and light, we rounded the top of the hill. Twenty seconds now, if that. Just down the road and around the corner. I dipped my hand into the pocket of my jeans for the house keys, and for one faltering heartbeat, I couldn’t feel them. Then my fingers closed around the jagged bits of metal and I pulled them out. In my haste, I almost dropped them – almost.
“Keys,” I wheezed. I didn’t have the breath to explain my point further. I hoped that the word housed enough communication for Gloria to understand what I wanted: for her to take my keys and run on ahead, to open the door. She could get there faster than me or the dead things on our tail. If I was the one to unlock the front door to the house, the screaming corpses would catch us as I fumbled the keys into the lock.
To my relief, Gloria stole a glance in my direction and nodded. She raised her cupped hands in the universal wordless signal for Chuck them to me. I swung my arm back and then tossed them in her direction. For one dizzying moment, I thought I had thrown the keys too hard and that they were going to go spinning past her and rattling onto the road in the darkness. But Gloria’s reflexes were fast, and she turned and caught the keys without missing a step.
Chuff. Chuff. Chuff. She increased her pace and started pulling away. Within a second or two, she was several paces ahead. As I watched Gloria sprint away into the night, I felt a sinking sensation in my gut. I knew she wasn’t leaving me. And yet, something in my brain noted the way that she broke from the pack while one of the carcasses behind me screeched its death cry into the night.
Go, Gloria, go! I urged her as I ran. She disappeared around the bend just ahead. So closely was I watching her go, that I didn’t look where I was going in the murk of the night. My foot caught the raised curb as I transitioned from road to pavement. I stumbled forward, heart lodged in my throat, hands flailing before me as my clumsy feet scrambled for purchase against the ground. If I hadn’t been fleeing from the physical embodiment of death itself, the scene might have appeared funny: me wobbling through the air on rubbery legs, the top half of my body practically perpendicular to the ground, arms pinwheeling like a cartoon.
There was a lurch in my stomach as I instantly accepted my fate. I would fall to the ground, scraping across the tarmac, and then they would fall upon me like vultures. I just hoped my death would be quick. I knew it wouldn’t be painless.
And then I caught my balance and stumbled onwards, scuttling out of the claws of demise once more. Safety was in view: my childhood home. Stood in the open doorway was Gloria, urging me on with her hands, her face a rictus of worry and panic. I pushed my body harder – one final surge to break away from those that would consume me. Gloria needed a second or two to close the door behind me. I grimaced and put my head down, forcing my shaking frame to go, go, oh, sweet Jesus, go!
I tumbled through the doorway with all the grace of walrus, but I made it, collapsing onto the stairs in the hallway. Behind me, Gloria slammed the door shut so violently the glass rattled in its frame. I waited for the confirming click of the key in the lock, but it never came.
“It won’t lock!” she screamed. “It won’t lock, it won’t lock!”
Picking myself up from the floor, I scrambled over to the door. “Let me,” I said, breathlessly. I grabbed the keys that dangled from the lock and turned them. They wouldn’t budge. Gloria was right, the damned thing wouldn’t lock. The keys rotated part of the way and then jammed. I cursed at the door and tried to force the keys the rest of the way, but then the door burst open.
Thankfully, Gloria was at my side and shut the door against the undead intruder, wedging him between door and frame. His ruined face snarled at us, his eyes milky white and searching, his gore-slaked teeth snapping in our direction.
I pulled the keys from the lock (clack!) and stabbed them in his direction, hoping to get him in the eye. His teeth snapped at my hand and he was so close to biting me, but Gloria doubled down on her pressure on the door, and the corpse’s movement capabilities were hindered. I jabbed again, and this time I didn’t miss. The key plunged into his eye with a sickening pop and squelch. He screamed in rage or agony, it was impossible to tell which, and then dropped backwards. Gloria thumped the door shut once more.
With shaking hands, I scrambled the chain across the door. My hands were trembling so severely that it took me several attempts. As soon as I had it, the door burst open again. The chain held – just – but I could see that it was straining. Bloody hands scrambled through the gap that the slack in the chain afforded. Fingers clawed and raked at the empty air, and I couldn’t help but imagine what those fingernails would do to my delicate skin: ripping, tearing, scratching.
We no longer had the keys to try and lock the door. They would break through – it was only a matter of minutes. Maybe seconds. Where to hide, where to hide? My brain tore through the layout of the house, thinking of an inaccessible place, or a hiding spot. Then it hit me.
“Up the stairs!”
“They’ll trap us,” said Gloria, the whites of her eyes oh so white. At that moment it dawned on me that she was just as frightened as I was.
We’re already trapped, I thought, but didn’t say. “We can hide in the loft,” I said, ushering her up the stairs, trying to keep my voice sounding even. “Go! Go!” Gloria turned and dashed up the stairs and I followed, the sound of the front door shuddering and juddering behind us, the jingling cacophony of the chain’s final moments tinkling over everything like shattering glass.
We’d often said to my dad that it would be a good idea to install a drop-down ladder for access to the loft. But, as is typical of people who have done something a particular way their entire lives, Dad preferred to use a step ladder to get up there and stubbornly refused to try something different.
That ladder was now residing in the garage. There was no way to access it. Not with the current time limit, that was.
“Jimmy, how do we get up there?” Gloria whined, hopping from foot to foot. I span around in a complete rotation, looking for something, anything. I stopped when my eyes fell upon the open door to what had been my older brother’s room. A medium-sized dresser was standing against the wall, next to the open door.
“Barny’s dresser!” I said, as much to myself as to Gloria. I didn’t need to tell her twice. She scurried into Barny’s room and swept the items – a mismatched gathering of items from years of collecting – to the floor with a sad clatter. She leaned into the dresser, shoulder first, and began pushing it before I had even the chance to help. I grabbed the side and started to pull, startled at how much she’d moved it by herself.
Together, we slid the piece of furniture across the floor. It was surprisingly heavy. When we got to the carpet cover strip that ran beneath the door, the dresser caught, and for a half a second it wouldn’t budge, but then Gloria growled through gritted teeth and shoved it over the threshold.
A split second later, the dresser was positioned beneath the hatch to the loft at an askew angle.
“Get up there!” she said, holding the dresser steady, but I shook my head.
“No. You first.”
We locked eyes, and I could tell she thought about arguing with me. But then she caved and scrambled up onto the dresser with remarkable agility. She reached up and unhooked the latch and punched the hatch up and away. Above me, I heard a dull thud as it flopped over to one side. Gloria jumped up and caught the edge of the loft’s hatch with her hands, and slowly raised herself upwards into the tiny square of sheer blackness.
Gloria disappeared into the loft with a grunt and groan. I glanced down the stairs at the front door. It was being pushed open wider with each second – how long until the chain pinged away, its chain-link snapping? I turned back to the loft just in time to see a pale white hand dropping down from the inky blackness.
I climbed up onto the dresser and reached for the hand that Gloria was offering. Below me, I heard the noise that I had been anticipating: an awful clattering, snapping sound, that I knew must be the door’s chain finally buckling and breaking. I tried and failed to push away the thought of the dead pouring into the house like a swarm of wasps.
Gloria grabbed my hand and pulled, and at the same time, I kicked at the dresser. I didn’t know how well they could climb, but I didn’t want to risk it. My foot collided with the side of it solidly. It hurt much more than I had anticipated, and I swore in pain, but the dresser rocked precariously to one side, wobbled, and then crashed sideways onto the floor of the landing, spilling the contents of its drawers across the carpet.
For one frozen moment in time, I dangled there, clutching Gloria’s hand. Not for the first time that night, I was astounded by just how strong she was.
And then the dead rushed up the stairs.
I had time to lock eyes with a snarling woman as she tore up the steps, her face wrinkled in a raging sneer. Gloria started to pull me up just as the dead woman grabbed my leg and bit down.
I felt the teeth against the denim of my jeans. I felt the pressure on my leg as her jaw clamped down. I squealed both in pain and from fear. This was it; this was it, I was dead, dead, dead, and—
Gloria pulled me up into the loft with a snarl that sounded astoundingly like the things that were chasing us. My leg slipped out of the dead woman’s clutches. With my upper half now in the coolness of the loft, I gripped the lip of the hatch and hauled myself upwards with everything I had. My arms felt like jelly, and I was so sure I wasn’t going to make it, I wasn’t going to make it, and then I was tumbling into the loft, collapsing on my side, gasping for breath.
Behind me, there was a scramble of movement as Gloria shut the hatch once more, and we were thrown into shadowy blackness. We couldn’t clasp the latch back into place as it was on the outside. We’d just have to hope that the height of the loft and the barrier of the closed hatch was enough.
Down below us, the dead growled and banged and clattered impatiently through my childhood home. The walking corpses tore through what had once been a happy place full of love and laughter; eating away at the sepia-tinted memories. They knew we were up here. They knew we’d come back down.
Beneath us, the dead waited.
In the cold gloom of the loft, Gloria and I huddled together for warmth, but mostly for comfort. We pressed our bodies together, our faces resting against each other’s, burying ourselves into the familiar contours. I’d often said that when we cuddled, we were like two jigsaw pieces that fit together, and that had never felt more like the absolute truth than it did right then. We held each other as our airy breaths turned to vapour in the darkness, floating away like miniature clouds. “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
And, much like the dead, we too waited.
What else was there to do?
18th December 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest